A tribute to the resilience of popular taste

The best news usually comes in the smallest typefaces. So one had to peer at the papers hard last week to learn that the Italian director Roberto Benigni's sharp comedy about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful, was the most profitable film in America last year (the most profitable, note - not the highest earning, a crude yardstick that measures little more than marketing musclepower). Life is Beautiful was nowhere near king of the world in the gross sense - Titanic took a bloated $1.83bn. But according to the figures in Variety magazine Benigni's sweet slice of life-and-death raked in $140m at the box office, representing a handsome 15-fold return on its original pounds 9m budget.

This is cheering news to anyone who likes to see big guns spiked once in a while. After the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty (the most profitable piece of celluloid in history, having made $205m on an outlay of just $3.5m) it confirms that size, while it may matter, isn't everything. It is not as if all these cheap propositions are works of art - far from it. But it is telling that seven of the 10 (Life is Beautiful, Pi, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Everest, Sliding Doors, Smoke Signals and Spice World) cost less than $10m - roughly the price of the propeller screws in Titanic, or the tidal wave in Prince of Egypt. Goliath - meet David.

On one level it makes perfect sense. The two most expensive commodities in the cinema are stars and special effects, and these, more often than not, are exactly the things that work against the success (speaking artistically - irrelevant, I know) of the film itself. A $100m purse virtually guarantees (unless you are Steven Spielberg) that there will be too many cooks. So if capitalism worked in an unmysterious way, Hollywood would respond to this fairly solid trend by investing in many modest projects. These, after all, are the potential goldmines.

Naturally, it is not that simple. In the winner-takes-all, monopolistic financial structure that controls film distribution, the market is weighted in favour of the producer, not the consumer (the audience). Hollywood is almost bound to persist in concentrating its fire on big-budget operations. Mere profitability is not, in the end, as important as sheer cash flow. A high return on investment is less exciting than simple industrial clout. After all, the studios have to fund what they call "high overheads", a neutral-sounding term for whopping salaries.

As it happens, a similar trend has been stalking our bookshops in the last few years. Many of the most striking commercial successes - Birdsong, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Fever Pitch, A Brief History of Time, The Beach, Longitude - have been the literary equivalent of low-budget movies. Not one of these books was captured in a frenzied public auction; the authors were not stars; none provoked splashy headlines slavering over the advances they had commanded. The books didn't even win prizes. They were simply nudged up the bestseller list by word of mouth. Theirs was no assault on the summit, but a stroll that climbed over the gates and carried on up.

Perhaps this is no more - nor less - than a tribute to the resilience of popular taste, which insists on taking what it wants even when deafened by noisy propaganda for rival attractions. But it might again be a sign that the routine economics of literature are loaded. The books that command the most attention are often non-books: ghosted biographies or sensational kiss 'n' tell sagas (or perhaps we should call them kiss and sell). These high-profile works - what we might call the hypocracy - are not always built to last, but they have enough celebrity news value to clean up in newspaper serialisations. Germaine Greer and Monica Lewinsky, to cite two authors of the moment, might not seem to have much in common, but in this respect they are both - pardon the phrase - cash cows. It's only a guess, but Greer was probably paid a hundred times more for her new book than for The Female Eunuch - a classic that came from nowhere.

There is no need to find this vexing. In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift the narrator, Charlie Citrine, responds to the wealth that showers on him by apologising for it. All this money is not his doing, he insists: "capitalism made it, for dark comic reasons of its own". Raymond Carver said much the same when he started to win prizes and grants. "The wheel has stopped on my number," he would say. "Don't tell anyone." Fame and fortune land on the deserving and the undeserving alike. And posterity isn't bothered: it knows that it will all come out in the wash in the end. But that doesn't mean we can't raise a glass when the little guy makes good. Life is beautiful. So is small.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?